What is… Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound?

This edition of the ‘what is…?‘ feature is a bit of a two-parter, as I don’t see much point in describing diegetic sound without describing non-diegetic sound at the same time.

Diegetic sound

Diegetic sound, also known as actual sound, is any sound whose source physically exists in the world of the film. This could be in the form of pretty much anything: characters talking, a gunshot, a dog barking, a radio, musical instruments. Diegetic sound may be on-screen or off-screen, but must emanate from action within the film.

Non-diegetic sound

Non-diegetic sound, also known as commentary sound, is sound whose source is not a part of the film’s world, in that it doesn’t comes from anything on screen or implied to come from somewhere off screen. Non-diegetic sound is added to film in post-production. Examples of non-diegetic sound include voiceovers and narration, mood music and soundtrack/score, and sound effects added for dramatic effect.

Diegetic and non-diegetic sound are often used together, as shown in this brilliant scene from The Shawshank Redemption.


The clip starts with the shuffling of records, a dripping tap, a prison guard talking – all diegetic sound. Then Andy puts on the Mozart record which plays out of the PA system. This is still diegetic sound, as even when the shot changes and the record player itself isn’t in shot, it still exists within the world of the film.

Then, at around the 2 minute mark, we hear one of Red’s voiceovers, an example of non-diegetic sound whilst the diegetic sound of the record continues in the background.

Now look at what can happen when the non-diegetic sound is taken out of a scene, as shown in this clip made by Paul Olohan from Zombieland…

Switching it up

Filmmakers may segue from diegetic to non-diegetic sound or vice-versa. For example, a character may be listening to the radio, an example of diegetic sound, but the music from the radio may then continue into the following scene and can no longer be heard by the character, thus becoming non-diegetic. This is sometimes known as trans-diegetic.

Filmmakers may also have a bit of fun with sound, leading us to believe it’s either diegetic or non-diegetic, but then revealing it to be the other. See the following clip from Blazing Saddles for instance…

Similarly, in this clip of Stranger Than Fiction, we hear a voiceover narration, which would ordinarily be considered non-diegetic. However, we soon discover that Will Ferrell’s character can actually hear the voiceover, suggesting that it is, in fact, diegetic.

Do you have any favourite uses or sound in film, either diegetic or non-diegetic? If so, let me know in the comments below.

For more entries in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here and (hopefully) learn a little bit about deep focus, chiaroscuro, German Expressionism, and more.

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48 thoughts on “What is… Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Sound?

  1. Awesome post, Chris. I love this series. It’s like going to film school for free! haha Great clips ;)

  2. I always thought “The Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now was interesting as it is diegetic sound in a scene where we would normally be more familiar with non-diegetic sound. Normally a battle or fight scene doesn’t have music playing within the movie but is added back in later. Obviously the choice of the song itself here has more symbolic implications in the film in general as well.

    I think this is an almost complete clip of that scene.

  3. This is fascinating. I’m gonna tell someone about it and I’ll seem really smart! Looking forward to the next ‘What is…?’

  4. Good heavens to Betsy, I’m not supposed to be required to think on a weekend!
    Did you redesign your site within the past week or am I indisposedly confused?

  5. Really interesting stuff mate! You learn something new every day…

    Adam.

  6. 70srichard says:

    Nice work. Here is a link to a foley commercial that used to run before the films here in Los Angeles, to promote the paper.

    Hope you enjoy.

  7. Tom says:

    Fascinating post Chris. I love the Harold Crick example, that was what made that film so quirky and hilarious in a non-traditional Will Ferrell kind of way.

  8. Mr. Movie says:

    Feels like I’m back at Film School! The inclusion of the clips is a nice touch.

  9. ruth says:

    Wow, great post Chris!! I never even paid attention to these things, so I learned something new today. I LOVE Stranger Than Fiction and that is a great example that diegetic sounds that people might consider non-diegetic. Fun stuff!

  10. elina says:

    Awesome post! I feel a lot smarter now. :D I love that you included these clips, too, nice touch. Already looking forward to the next “What is…”! ;)

  11. You’re the best, teach! Educational stuff written engagingly as always Chris.

  12. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I learnt about this the other year doing film studies.

  13. ianthecool says:

    Awesome, thanks for the lesson once again! This is one of those things you hardly ever consciously think about the difference, though the difference is clearly there.

  14. Love this post! I already knew about the difference between Digetic and non-Digetic sound, but it’s nice to be reminded of it every now and again because paying attention to it really does make viewing more interesting. One of my favorite techniques is in horror films when you hear super creepy music, only to see a character turn off the record player, and suddenly everything is silent. I remember that happening in the first season of American Horror Story. It’s quite effective!

    • Glad you like it :) Yeah that’s a great example when people do that, it’s really effective. There’s an episode of The Simpson’s where we hear that famous knife sound from Psycho only for a bus full of violinists to drive past all making the noise on their instruments.

  15. JustMeMike says:

    Terrific topic. And thanks to Flashback for the clip from A/N.

    I learned something today.

    jmm

  16. hybridZone says:

    Reblogged this on hybridZone and commented:
    awesome topic, its good to see when someone points out unfamiliar but important titbits from the movie world

  17. What a sweet post, Chris. I love learning these. Never heard of it! Great examples, too. : )

  18. theipc says:

    I LOVE these posts! Keep them coming!

  19. Alex Withrow says:

    Holy hell, this is a great post. I love explaining the use of diegetic and non-diegetic sound to people. One of the reasons I think The Wire was so effective and unique was because, with only one or two exceptions in the show’s history, it never used non-diegetic music. And as a fan of non-diegetic tunes in movies/TV shows (when used well, of course), I found that fascinating about The Wire. It really helped establish that show’s authenticity.

    Again, GREAT post here.

    • Thanks so much Alex, really appreciate it! Ya know, I hadn’t actually noticed that about The Wire when I first watched it, but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest they went with that decision. It’ll about being rooted in reality so it makes sense. So many things that make that show awesome!

  20. caragale says:

    Love this! You’re just taking us all to school, my friend! ;)

  21. Mark Walker says:

    Excellent, as always, Chris. I do enjoy these little educational posts. I’d never heard of this term before. Cheers man!

  22. Monkeyboy says:

    Not much too add. Just wanted to say what a great post! :)

  23. Nostra says:

    Never thought about this, but you give some great examples! Always a joy to read these and learn a bit more :)

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